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Why Travis King, the US soldier who crossed into North Korea, may be a ‘nuisance’ to Kim Jong Un’s regime

The US military in Korea is examining the possibility that Private 2nd Class Travis King he had planned for a time to defect to North Korea.

This may be unpleasant news for the Kim Jong Un regime.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea a few years ago, wrote on Facebook:

“American soldiers who have defected/defected to North Korea are inevitably a nuisance because the long-term return is low.”

An undated file photo obtained by Reuters shows US Army Private 2nd Class Travis King.


Thae, who is now a lawmaker, recalled the case of another defector whose care and management proved an expensive burden for Pyongyang.

“A professional security and surveillance team had to be created … an interpreter and a private vehicle, driver and accommodation had to be arranged,” he wrote.

While King’s decision to go to North Korea may have some propaganda value for Kim Jong Un, the soldier also poses a problem for a regime bound by its own rigid rules.

For starters, his arrival broke North Korean law.

It is illegal to enter North Korea without official documents or approval. While this may seem absurd to most people, Pyongyang believes with some justification that it is necessary to deter people who might have a mission, think religious aid groups, from sneaking into the Hermit Kingdom.

A former US official specializing in North Korea told CBS News that when the US complained about the treatment of several Americans who had entered the North illegally, Pyongyang responded by asking the US to do a better job of keeping its citizens under control.

That means King’s fate won’t be decided quickly. At the very least, North Korea must go through the motions to try him for illegal entry and convict him. Only then, perhaps, will he cross the border, technically known as the Military Demarcation Line, back to face the music at home.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul told CBS News that even if King defected with the intention of staying, he is likely to change his mind.

“He would not blend into North Korean society and ask to be sent to the United States,” he said.

Over the past three decades, 11 US citizens have been detained, either illegally or accidentally entering North Korea. All of them were eventually released, although some required high-level diplomatic intervention.

Times have changed since then. Diplomatic intervention has become virtually impossible since North Korea sealed off its borders at the start of the pandemic. Almost all foreign officials were forced to leave the country. That includes representatives of Sweden, America’s “protecting power” to the north, who may have lobbied for access to King.

Although as a private, he has limited intelligence value to the North Koreans, King is required to be briefed by state security.

They will assess whether he really is a defector and whether his fantastic story about leaving the airport and boarding a DMZ tour bus holds up. They will also have to satisfy the management that he is neither a provocateur nor an undercover agent.

Only then could he be allowed to stay. One expert suggested that he might be useful as an English teacher, or perhaps as an editor for the English versions of the state media. In the 1960s, after the Korean War, some US military deserters ended up playing the roles of Ugly Capitalist American Villains in North Korean films.

If Pyongyang decides it’s more trouble than it’s worth, Professor Yang suggested Kim Jong Un could even use it to initiate negotiations.

North Korea could welcome a high-level US envoy to negotiate King’s return, Yang suggested, and use it as a catalyst for direct talks between the US and the DPRK.

But the US says it is already open to talks. It’s just that at the moment Kim Jong Un is not interested. The unexpected arrival of a 23-year-old American defector is unlikely to change his mind.


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